Credit: Telegraph Sport via Twitter.
Irish Champion Trainer Willie Mullins is set to run a strong team at the Punchestown Festival later this month. The Irish meeting is the last major international meeting in national hunt racing, and attracts the best horses from the UK, France and Ireland.
Mullins ended the Cheltenham Festival with six winners, a fine total considering he drew a blank on the opening two days after a slow start to the week. He also had four winners recently at the Irish Grand National meeting at Fairyhouse, including with Thomas Hobson who prevailed in the Grade A Glascarn Handicap Hurdle ahead of the highly regarded Veinard, who was tipped up by Oddschecker, while JP McManus-owned After Rain was in the third.
The feature race next week is the Punchestown Gold Cup, where Mullins is bidding for his fourth success in the three-mile, one-furlong contest. The Irishman is set to saddle Djakadam, who has been second in this Grade One contest in 2015 and 2016. Djakadam finished fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which was won by Sizing John last month where he went off as the +300 favourite. He was travelling really well in the race until he made a bad blunder at the second-to-last fence, which really cost him any chance of coming out on top. Mullins will be confident his horse can deliver again at Punchestown as he was successful at the same track earlier in the campaign in the Grade One John Durkan Memorial Chase.
The Punchestown Champion Hurdle could be the race in which Mullins’ star mare Annie Power makes her return to the track in what would be her opening run of the campaign. The 2016 Champion Hurdle winner was unable to defender her crown at Cheltenham due to a leg injury. She currently tops the betting at +200 to win this prestigious hurdle race, which may also feature her stablemate Arctic Fire, who defied top weight in the County Hurdle last month. Vroum Vroum Mag, meanwhile also has an entry, as she will be bidding to go one place better than her second-placed finish in the Mares’ Hurdle behind Apple’s Jade.
Nichols Canyon caused a surprise at Cheltenham in the Stayers’ Hurdle where he prevailed at odds of +1000. The seven-year-old appeared to enjoy the step up to three miles where he got the better of Lil Rockerfeller by just under a length, while the short-price favourite Unowhatimeanharry was third. The first three home at Cheltenham are set to do battle again at Punchestown, where Mullins will be hoping his hurdler can topple his rivals again in which he is +150 to do so.
Mullins also has the favourite for the Punchestown Champion Chase, where the Ryanair Chase winner Un De Sceaux is set to drop back down to two miles. The former Arkle winner went up in distance at Cheltenham to prove he is very versatile; however, the Champion Chase trip is thought to be his optimum trip. Un De Sceaux is set to meet Cheltenham runner-up Fox Norton in Ireland, while Gods Own and Rock The World both have entries in the leading two-mile race over fences.
In the Trainers’ title at the meeting, Mullins is odds-on to gain compensation for losing his trophy at Cheltenham to Gordon Elliott. His rival also had six winners at the Festival last month but finished the week with more seconds to gain the prize on checkback. Mullins is locked in a battle with Elliott for the Irish Trainers’ Championship where he is second going into the last big meeting of the season.